Even within the oversaturated world of superhero blockbusters, there isn’t a spandexed figure who commands more attention than Batman, a character whose tragic backstory is so firmly established that new films are practically mandated to skip past his parents’ deaths because we’ve seen them so many times before. (Spider-Man and Uncle Ben nod in agreement.) But the audience’s familiarity with Batman means that some attention can be pulled away from the character to observe, and appreciate, what a filmmaker does with him.
Batman is by no means a blank canvas—there are only so many directions one can go with a billionaire orphan who dresses up as a bat to beat up criminals—but he’s become something of a Rorschach test for directors, a mirror that reflects their sensibilities. In Tim Burton’s hands, Batman was as moody and strange as Gotham’s architecture; the late Joel Schumacher embraced the unapologetically campy spirit of the Adam West era; Christopher Nolan gave the character the kind of suave demeanor and high-tech gadgetry that would make James Bond blush; cinema’s resident himbo Zack Snyder imagined him as a vengeful CrossFit instructor. Now, Matt Reeves, the latest auteur to take the reins of the franchise with The Batman, has transformed our hero into a hard-boiled detective following a trail of bread crumbs left by a serial killer.
It’s an intriguing direction to take Batman, though not a surprising one. In the lead-up to The Batman’s release, Reeves and star Robert Pattinson enthusiastically (and somewhat ridiculously) compared the movie and its cowled protagonist to everything from old-school noirs and Alfred Hitchcock thrillers to Kurt Cobain and Travis Bickle. Not all these supposed influences translate meaningfully to the screen; minus a few looks into rear windows, you’d be hard-pressed to call the movie Hitchcockian. But from the opening moments of The Batman—wherein the Riddler (Paul Dano) spies on Gotham’s mayor before brutally killing him and leaving a personal note for Batman—it’s hard not to buy what Reeves is selling. In his hands, an on-screen Batman finally gets a chance to live up to his comics reputation as “the World’s Greatest Detective.”
The Batman’s sprawling mystery begins with the mayor’s death and the crime scene the Riddler leaves behind, which includes a cipher for Batman to unpack that ultimately leads to a severed thumb attached to a—wait for it—thumb drive. (The Riddler’s methods fall somewhere between those of the real-life Zodiac Killer and Se7en’s John Doe.) The Riddler’s clues give Batman an opportunity to understand why the mayor was targeted, and how it relates to a complex web of corruption across Gotham that implicates public officials, mob leaders, and even Bruce Wayne’s father. Naturally, Batman doesn’t need a second invitation to invest in whatever the Riddler is planning to expose.
While Batman gets plenty of time to pummel bad guys across the movie’s nearly three-hour running time, it’s clear that the biggest priority for Reeves—and by extension our hero—is the nitty-gritty detective work. Batman won’t exactly be mistaken for True Detective’s Rust Cohle, but there’s an obsessiveness to his approach that’s borderline concerning; the Riddler case and its implications consume him. It’s telling that our glimpses of Bruce Wayne are few and far between, and that he’s painted—quite convincingly—as a recluse living in a gothic tower that’s seemingly on the verge of collapse. Even Andy Serkis’s Alfred Pennyworth isn’t the same warm, paternal figure fans are accustomed to. (Alfred’s presence is also light on actual butler-ing, unless helping Bruce decipher the Riddler’s clues falls under the job description—everyone in this version of Gotham is two steps away from being an amateur sleuth.)
A recurring theme of Batman adaptations is that the Caped Crusader and his greatest adversaries—particularly the Joker—are two sides of the same coin. (As Heath Ledger’s Joker said during his interrogation scene in The Dark Knight: “You complete me.”) But The Batman is perhaps the first time that these comparisons between hero and villain actually feel earned. Not long after we get a point-of-view shot of the Riddler spying on the mayor—a moment that’s reminiscent of the opening sequence of The Conversation—the film holds on Batman’s perspective as he does the same with Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz). The only difference is that one of them wasn’t planning to kill the person they’re keeping tabs on, but let’s call it what it is: Batman is creeping. The line between killer and vigilante is paper-thin, not unlike a detective in a neo-noir who’s willing to do whatever it takes to get the answers they seek. After all, Batman makes it clear that he’s not out for justice: He’s seeking vengeance. (Side note: Do not make a drinking game out of characters saying “vengeance” in The Batman; you will end up in the hospital.)
The persistent grunginess of The Batman—the endless rain, the moody voice-overs, the multiple needle drops of “Something in the Way”—would border on self-parody if Reeves weren’t so committed to the vision. This isn’t like when the director of a Marvel movie compares their project to ’70s conspiracy thrillers or Terrence Malick—Reeves genuinely makes The Batman feel like the sum of its biggest influences. A David Fincher-esque procedural in which law enforcement shines a giant bat symbol into the night sky might sound ridiculous on paper, but the end result is thrillingly immersive. Really, the biggest limitation to Reeves’s grand design is that he’s relegated to a PG-13 rating that curtails the potential grisliness of Gotham’s underbelly or the Riddler’s heinous acts.
The Batman is the second film of DC’s “multiverse” offshoot—a strategy where Warner Bros. develops stand-alone stories that aren’t tied to the DCEU—following the success of Joker, which scored 11 Oscar nominations and became the first R-rated movie to cross the billion dollar threshold at the box office. That The Batman is already drawing extremely premature 2023 Oscar buzz is just further proof that DC’s multiverse could function as the studio’s “prestige” wing of superhero programming. But while Joker’s empty provocations gave the impression of (admittedly successful) Oscar bait, Reeves’s intentions appear to be far more in service of the actual source material. Above all else, The Batman is faithful to a long-held interpretation of the character: the notion that the greatest asset for a superhero without superpowers is dogged detective work.
Of course, The Batman is still a superhero movie, and has some of the familiar hallmarks of one. When push comes to shove, the Caped Crusader has to fight crime by literally fighting criminals, and by the end of the film, another notorious Batman villain is being teased from Arkham Asylum for a sequel that seems all but inevitable. There are certain rules that even the most audacious superhero blockbusters must adhere to, whether they’re part of a larger cinematic universe or not. But after so many directors have put their own spin on Batman, from the highs of Nolan and Burton to the more contentious eras of Snyder and Schumacher, finding a fresh perspective on pop culture’s most ubiquitous superhero is trickier than any of the Riddler’s puzzles. The best endorsement for The Batman is that Reeves followed his hero’s lead and cracked the case.